Last week, I took part in the University of Montana’s Day of Dialogue, an exercise in promoting tolerance, diversity and social justice. Our discussion was led by John Lund, who runs the campus Lutheran ministry, Emmaus, and Casey Dunning, who heads the Missoula Interfaith Collaborative, a faith-based group that has come together to work on social issues such as hunger and homelessness.
Despite — and perhaps because of — my agnostic beliefs, I serve on the collaborative’s advisory council and believe in its mission of bringing together the power of diverse faith groups. The event drew a good crowd and the discussion of how we bring such groups together was, for the most part, predictably collegial. It’s a source of abiding joy for me to see evangelicals, Catholics, Buddhists, etc. set aside strongly held belief systems in favor of helping those in need.
Part of the discussion was about setting aside stereotypes we might hold about other faiths — or those with no defined faith at all — in pursuit of a higher, common good. Our table was a pretty diverse lot — two Muslim students, a Catholic priest and parishioner, a Mormon and me, the lower-case agnostic. John and Casey gave us a few scenarios to think through, and each table reported their discussions to the larger group.
Our last discussion involved how and whether we could set aside belief systems to work with people that our faiths put us at odds with. Again, we were a pretty agreeable lot, though I think if we’d had more time, we might have wound up at loggerheads on issues like abortion. But we never got there, as one Muslim student stated adamantly that he couldn’t and wouldn’t work with or on behalf of gay people. As he spoke, he literally embraced the negative stereotype that some have of Muslims as rigid, judgmental and inflexible. Worse, he said things that I can only describe as beyond-faith statements. Namely, that by helping gays, he would be working to create a world where most people would — magically, I suppose — become gay, eventually fashioning a society that would crumble because of a lack of children born by heterosexual coupling. He clearly believed there is a homosexual agenda to take over the world, and that his faith required him to act affirmatively against said agenda. Although a fellow MIC member and I tried to point out some holes in his argument, he stood fast, embracing a literalist position from the Koran and highlighting the challenge of a world that suffers when fundamentalism comes to power.
We all sit in judgment at times. It’s human nature, in a way, a method of comparison. Some things are easy to parse — a child killer is, most likely, a bad man. But most things are considerably more complex, and our opinions about them represent yet another set of complexities involving culture, nature, education, genetics. The upshot is that it’s pretty easy to get carried away — to see yourself as better, more correct, more enlightened. When you bring faith into the equation, you might even feel chosen, one of the limited, elite recipients of holy wisdom. There’s a strain of that in American politics these days.
Judgment needs to be tempered by measured thought. As a society, we seem to be getting less good at that. We respond instantly, regurgitating our recent and often unedited thoughts into the Twittersphere. We are quick to cast aspersions on those unlike us. We speak with arrogant certainty about things we know little about it.
At the Day of Dialogue, we talked about walking our faiths, putting our beliefs into action. I believe in that, to a degree. But rigid, unwavering adherence to nearly any sort of belief system is a path into darkness. It’s a way of meeting the world with your windows and doors closed to the light of the open mind. This world already suffers from too much darkness. It’s time to throw open the windows.